New paper from Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Google suggests AI could save billions of dollars across the food and consumer electronics industries
The term 'Artificial Intelligence' (AI) can be a frightening one. Anyone who has seen 2001: A Space Odyssey knows what might happen if a computer gets a mind of its own.
But the birth of AI isn't just a worrisome topic for science fiction. This year global risk experts once again flagged it as one of the major technological risks facing the world economy - in particular, the potential for AI to be used to engineer sophisticated cyber attacks or to promulgate 'fake news'. Meanwhile, a study from the Brookings Institute last year found 32 per cent of people view AI as a threat to humanity, compared to 24 per cent who don't.
But despite our fears, might AI prove to be a force for good in the world? A new study released today by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Google suggests AI's super-human analytical power could be harnessed to wipe out inefficiencies in global supply chains, in everything from food to consumer electronics, delivering massive cost and environmental savings in the process.
Specifically, it suggests AI could be used to design out waste in the food system to deliver annual savings of $127bn a year in 2030. For example, emerging AI technologies could be used to determine when fruit is ready to pick, matching food supply and demand more accurately, and ensuring commercial uses are found for food by-products.
Similarly, the consumer electronics industry could save up to $90bn a year by 2030, the report estimates, by using AI to improve predictive maintenance of machines and run smarter e-waste and recycling systems.
But the paper stresses the opportunities for AI to drive a more circular economy are not limited to just these two sectors.
Google, which co-authored the report, has invested heavily in AI via its acquisition of DeepMind in 2014. That acquisition is already bearing green fruit across its operations - last year DeepMind sold Google access to some of its AI systems that will make the cooling units in its data centres more energy efficient and improve the battery power in its Android devices.
"Combining the power of AI with a vision for a circular economy represents a significant, and as yet largely untapped, opportunity to harness one of the great technological developments of our time to support efforts to fundamentally reshape the economy into one that is regenerative, resilient, and fit for the long term," the report suggests.
The need to find a smarter system of resource use is clear. The world is under increasing pressure to make its finite resources stretch ever further. Earth Overshoot Day, the date which marks the point in the year humans have used their year's worth of resources, now falls somewhere in mid-July. But much of those resources are going to waste - in 2016 the world produced 45 million tonnes of electronic waste alone, worth a staggering €55bn to the global economy.
Yesterday's report came on the same day as a separate study from the Circle Economy business group detailed how just nine per cent of the minerals, fossil fuels, metals, and biomass resources that are extracted each year are re-used. Consequently, material use is responsible for 62 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, excluding those from forestry and land use. And those emissions keep climbing as resource use spirals upwards.
However, there are encouraging signs technology is already helping to drive a more circular economy where businesses shift from a 'take, make, dispose' model to a circular, closed loop resource model. Smart sensors and the 'Internet of Things' are helping to ensure energy hungry appliances are monitored and optimised, blockchain is boosting supply chain traceability, and innovations such as 3D printing are helping to promote reuse and repair.
AI could take this one step further. As yesterday's paper points out, AI has the power to solve complex problems faster than humans can, and can therefore help establish circular economy resource flows at a faster rate than would otherwise be possible.
In particular, it can assist in three broad areas: in the design of circular products, components, and materials; in the operation of circular business models; and in the deployment of circular economy infrastructure.
For circular products, it can speed up the identification and testing of new materials, such as helping scientists pick sustainable replacements for single-use plastics, the paper suggests. Meanwhile, circular business models can be boosted by using AI to support price setting and forecast demand on second-hand trading platforms.
Finally, a fully circular economy will need infrastructure to support it, including a comprehensive system for managing and sorting waste streams to maximise resource recovery. AI can help here too. For example, ZenRobotics is one company highlighted thanks to its intelligent waste-sorting robot which has an accuracy rate of 98 per cent when sorting mixed waste streams.
"Ultimately, AI could be used to help redesign whole systems, and optimise networks and national and global infrastructure towards a circular economy," the paper suggests.
Jumping head first into the world of AI is not without its risks. It's a technology many are fearful of, promising as it does to radically reshape the business and technology worlds in a way that could be beyond our control. It will inevitably need smart regulation and policy interventions that guard against the worst risks without stifling the many benefits the technology can offer.
But ultimately AI could make the structural redesign needed to put the global economy onto a more sustainable footing far, far easier. It could help usher in a new era where waste is simply designed out of a system, where products are repaired just before they break, where automated reports and robots effortlessly sort recycling, and where smart algorithms predict how many tomatoes you will buy this week before you yourself know.
AI has the power to change the world. Whether that's for better or for worse is, to a large extent, up to us.
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